Is This Where It Ends?

So, today’s assignment is for you to get acquainted with my friend, Claire Berlinski, mostly because she’s really, really smart. You know how some people have this way of taking disparate, seemingly unrelated facts and weaving them into this Grand Unifying Theory that makes you think, “Well, of course, why didn’t I see that in the first place?” She’s one of those people.

A caveat here. She’s not really my friend, and I’ve never met her. I’ve never even seen her or heard her speak. We met on Twitter (she’s @ClaireBerlinsky and I’m @MrLiam), where I think she actually responded to me on one of her threads. Also, I sent her a modest contribution to help support her work, and she wrote the kindest email of gratitude. She likes cats, so there’s that, but everything she writes is thought-provoking and engaging enough to keep you awake thinking about it.

On July 1, she posted on Twitter, “An open thread: What do you expect the United States and the West will be like in ten years’ time, and why? Do you expect the US to hold together? The EU? If not, what will replace them?

“What forms of government will emerge triumphant, and how will we view this period of our history? Who will be the winners and losers? Which old ideas will be consigned to the dustbin of history? Which new ones will blaze across our political awareness? Why?

“Will the world be more stable or less? Happier or unhappier? Richer or poorer? Fairer or more unjust? More harmonious and beautiful, or uglier, more damaged, and more anomic?” (Note: She really did that–used “anomic” in a sentence).*

See what I mean?

I started to reply a few times, and then just gave up. That’s because not only do I not know, not only do I not know what I’d need to know to start knowing, I don’t even know where to look. For example, Plato’s Republic suggested that democracy necessarily leads to tyranny. If I were to similarly respond to Ms. Berlinski’s questions, where would I look for evidence? Our world seems to be awash with autocracies and kakistocracies and all manner of badassocracies, and those seem to be winning out over democracies. But the way things seem now doesn’t mean things will be this way forever, right? Where would you look? What social, economic, and political undercurrents are flowing to suggest a reasonable answer?

Or, say, the novel coronavirus thing that doesn’t really seem so novel anymore? As of this writing, it’s out of hand in the U.S. and relief is not in sight. We can wax on about who’s right, i.e., science, and who’s wrong, i.e. those in authority, but then what? Win the argument and lose the sale, as Standard Oil taught my salesman father. Add to this the purported cures–thoughts and prayers on one hand, or a Godot vaccine on the other. The former doesn’t work at all, while the latter may work half-assed or not at all. We may wait for Godot for years and years, and the curtain could drop in the meantime.

Which brings us back to Ms. Berlinski’s questions. The answers? As Tevye the Dairyman said, “Well, I’ll tell you: I don’t know.” I started contemplating some with this previous post on the fallout from the Black Lives Matter protests, thinking, naively perhaps, even chauvinistically, that solutions for the larger problems in America might show a pathway towards figuring out how world history would begin to play out. Since the end of World War II, America really has led the way forward with Pax Americana, if you will, with both good and bad consequences. Ms. Berlinski once noted that the price of keeping the world’s sea lanes free and open might be American hegemony. Well, okay. Sociologist Michael Mann, in his book Incoherent Empire, posits that the U.S., in a transition from Republic to militaristic empire, can’t figure out if it’s a universal force for freedom, justice, and human rights, or if it’s just there to bomb the crap out of any country it doesn’t like or whose stuff America’s oligarchs want to take.

Honestly? Where we go from here is anyone’s guess. 

Do I expect the U.S. to hold together, and what form(s) of government will prevail in ten years’ time? My reflexive response is “not entirely” and “authoritarian.” But why do I think that? I don’t know why, not just because of the above not-knowing, but also because of the black swans large and small. What if, say, China doesn’t stop at Hong Kong, but goes on to invade Taiwan as well? What if Pakistan or India nukes the other? What if Russia invades Lithuania? What if North Korea accidentally blows up Guam? What if a giant meteor smacks Paris and burns a wide swathe to Berlin?

I’m also cursed with indecisiveness, by which I mean that nearly every conviction I have is subject to doubt. An example is a creeping premonition that all those incidents involving people with guns may not be a few nut jobs, but the beginnings of an insurrection. I don’t mean the mass shootings, such as Sandyhook or Columbine or Florida Pulse or Parkland or a dozen others. I’m thinking of Cliven Bundy in Nevada, Ammon Bundy in Oregon, Boogaloo, the Oathkeepers, the Three Percenters, and many similar militia groups. Insurrection? Country breaking up? You tell me. I can be talked out of it.

I can be talked out of it even though the January 2021 Congress is likely to have more QANON members than the AOC Squad. Who knew? Maybe I can’t be talked out of it.

Which brings us back to Ms. Berlinski and others like her. I think she leans conservative, but I’m not sure. In her case, it doesn’t matter. Heather Cox Richardson leans to the left, but it likewise doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because both have a marvelous ability to synthesize events into a coherent narrative that might–might–help each of us, if not offer answers to the questions in Ms. Berlinski’s Twitter post, at least get us thinking about them.  

It’s hard, I know. I mean, take the question, “Do you expect the U.S. to hold together?” I can’t get past why the question comes up, let alone attempt answer it. That said, America, even the world, I’m pretty sure, is at an existential moment, however you define “moment,” and we all need to seriously contemplate a host of concerns that were unimaginable a couple of short years ago.

I mean, really–Is this where it ends?

 

 

 

*Anomie is a societal condition defined by an uprooting or breakdown of any moral values, standards, or guidance for individuals to follow.[1][2] Anomie may evolve from conflict of belief systems and causes breakdown of social bonds between an individual and the community (both economic and primary socialization; normlessness (from Wikipedia).

Them That’s Got Shall Get. Them That’s Not Shall Lose.

Fiction writer Raymond Carver talked of an epiphanous moment he had at an automatic laundry. He was there with his kids, hung over, searching for coins to put in the machines, unsure how he’d pay his rent, how it had been the same way in the same laundry the week before and the week before that, and he suddenly realized that if something didn’t change, this was the way it would be forever. 

Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)

The recent mass protests over police killings of African-Americans is precipitating such a moment. Why? It’s not as though we haven’t known about the problem for years. Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Breona Taylor, and now George Floyd are a few of the many names of killed black people over the years so often at the hands of police. We’ve been properly outraged, passed it off, and made excuses: Maybe they were at the wrong place at the wrong time; maybe they were doing something they shouldn’t have been doing; I wasn’t there, so I don’t know everything; it was a fraught moment and the cops had to make a split-second decision under extreme duress. Or this: I’m so appalled over what happened, but  what am I supposed to do about it when nothing will change and politicians won’t do anything anyway?

Why is the country, even the world, realizing that if something doesn’t change, it will be this way forever, and the status quo is no  longer acceptable? Is there a context this time to make it all explode? 

It’s been out there all along, but it’s as though people are seeing it for the first time: Them that’s got, shall get, and them that’s not, shall lose.

Mega-producer Extraction Oil and Gas, strapped with $1.7 billion debt incurred well before oil demand tanked (so to speak), just filed for bankruptcy. Before filing, the company’s board approved $6.7 million in executive compensation, the questionable judgment in obligating the company to the suffocating debt apparently not an issue. A legal analyst (third party, not a company flak) said these compensation agreements are increasingly common with firms about to file bankruptcy so key staffers stay on board for the reorganization.

Extraction also secured $125 million of financing–more debt–just prior to filing. Never mind that energy giant BP is advising Wall Street that the world will need less oil in the future and wrote down $17.5 billion of its mineral holdings. Whoa! I guess that added to Extraction’s creditworthiness, but what do I know?

Not to be outdone, 24-Hour Fitness also filed for bankruptcy, a noble act which allowed it to receive $250 million in interim financing as it closed all its locations, many of them permanently, and sent their employees packing.

Meanwhile, millions of furloughed workers are facing eviction. Mortgage defaults have spiked, with the fired employees holding the empty bag the executive compensation came out of. Maybe they can declare bankruptcy and secure a few mill in interim financing and carry on as before.

But it’s more than Wall Street.

Major League Baseball’s superstar outfielder Mike Trout has a 12-year contract for $425.5 million. Pitcher Gerritt Cole’s is for a measly nine years and $329 million. Meanwhile, in city after city, local taxpayers underwrite the stadiums for teams with billion-dollar valuations. Never mind that most taxpayers don’t enjoy baseball, and of those who do, many can’t afford the tickets.

These guys are playing by the system’s rules, the statutes and practices and customs in American mercantile society that have evolved over time, and we’ve all bought into it. Or gone along with it. Or endured it. A system that rewards sports people so generously. A system that lets massive, publicly-traded corporations go tap city while raining money on executives, then borrow more dough for a do-over while sticking it to their employees.

Former National Football League coach and announcer John Madden once said that “winning covers up a lot of stink.” He was referring to the fractures within sports franchises that everyone overlooks as long as the team is winning, but so it goes with the American community writ large. Don’t like paying for billionaires’ sports stadiums? Think it’s outrageous that some no-name third stringer gets $3 million while teachers have to buy their own supplies and can’t pay rent? Shake your head when you realize some people’s restaurant tabs are more than many other peoples’ paycheck? Scowl when you learn that a lot of people pay more than half their income for housing? I think those things upset most of us. But if our own lives are humming along, the outrage doesn’t last very long. Winning–our our getting  along okay while a few other folks are not–covers up the stink.

It’s as much a question of societal values as it is one of equity. Greet a friend, and you shake hands with the enemy. And conversely.

My friend David Wagman, a journalist and editor who specializes in energy infrastructure and also writes the INFRAreport, took a side road into into equality with a recent post. I agree with him, but I’d add that our society needs a huge, systemic change, a brand new architecture.

Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty has become America’s War on Poor People, but why, suddenly, isn’t the stink covered up anymore? Why do so many seem to care? The coronavirus invasion spiked the system for sure. But the event that has shaken each of us to the very core isn’t  some pandemically-minded paramecia. It’s the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in particular, and the Black Lives Matter movement in shining a supernova klieg light on on the official sanctioning of killing black people in general. Why is it different this time?

Because we now realize that if police can come for George Floyd and kill him, they can come for us. If a quarter of the workforce can be made dust in the wind, so can we. If millions can get evicted or foreclosed on, so can we. We’ve known this for a while. Society has known this. But because of the mass outrage Black Lives Matter has inspired, we all suddenly realize that if something doesn’t change, and fast, it’s going to be this way forever.

“Don’t tell me the problems, tell me the answers,” an old boss was fond of saying. Okay, will do, but they’ll be in subsequent posts, because they’re, you know, kind of involved and nuanced and not bumper sticker worthy. Moreover, what do I know? I’m no expert and I’m not in charge of anything. But I can try, I can offer my two cents, and it will go something like this:

  1. Creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, similar to what Nelson Mandela did in South Africa. One ugly truth we need to hold a mirror to is blaming the police for society’s deficiencies. We need both national and personal uncomfortable and honest discussions on race and a common definition of what racism is. The purpose isn’t so much to assign blame as it is to develop a common set of facts, and from that to agree on accountability and redress. If South Africans can do it, so can we.
  2. Economic re-structuring, with a goal of altering the divide between the one percent and 99 percent. Staggering wealth inequality benefits no one. And part of this change must include reparations to African-Americans. The argument of who gets what and how can be resolved by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
  3. Upend and rebuild the entire education system, which may involve the elimination of charter schools. If America will provide a high-quality education in high-quality facilities to very student, the contrived issue of “choice” will be displaced.
  4. The country needs a mechanism of some kind to certify journalists. It’s not just low-information people who can’t contribute to solutions, it’s the disinformation people. Yes, we’re politically polarized, and yes, we tend to watch the “news” we want to hear, and that needs to end. I don’t know if the Fairness Doctrine that existed until 30 years ago, whereby holders of broadcast licenses had to report all sides, can be reinstated. I’m not even sure it should. But we need a way to deliver honest and trustworthy information so that people of diverse opinions at least share the same facts.
  5. We need to agree on how the police should be restructured. As with the armed forces, the police may legally commit violence and take lives on behalf of the civil authority. Yet the military is a trusted institution, while the police are not.

That’s it for now. Screed over. Get informed, get involved, care, reach out. It doesn’t have to be this way forever.

 

COVID Voices: These Are the Things They Did

“For sale. Baby’s shoes. Never worn.” That’s a six-word short story often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, widespread doubt notwithstanding. Hemingway’s talent was brevity of prose, his ability to tell a big story in a few words, and his style sparked a writing tradition in American fiction.

You can’t help but recall this six-word story when you read through the list of names in the New York Times May 24, 2020 edition listing people who died of COVID-19.  Okay, I confess to being a sucker for someone’s story, and I zoom in to these names and brief obits with imagination unloosed. As the Times puts it, “None were mere numbers.”

I’m channeling Mr. Greeke. “William D. Greeke, 55, Massachussetts, thought it was important to know a person’s life story.” There are just over 329 million Americans right now, but there was only one William D. Greeke.

What’s moving is that the same kind of uniqueness is true for every other victim of the coronavirus pandemic.

“June Beverly Hill, 85, Sacramento, no one made creamed potatoes or fried sweet corn the way she did.”

“Clara Louise Bennett, 91, Albany, Ga., sang her grandchildren a song on the first day of school each year.”

“Cynthia Whiting, 66, La Plata, Md., determined to spoil her granddaughter.”

“Robert L. Crahen, 87, Waunakee, Wis., nicknamed ‘Boxcar Bob’ for his luck in shaking dice.”

“Harley E. Acker, 79, Troupsburg N.Y., discovered his true calling when he started driving a school bus.”

“Stanley Marvin Grossman, 83, Nanuet, N.Y., known to many for his amazing Donald Duck impersonations.”

Most of the stories I’ve cited so far are of really old people, with whom, being 72, I feel a certain consanguinity. As I’ve said before, I can’t recommend old age, since its future is somewhat limited. On the other hand, Senior Citizens is the only minority group I ever aspired to join, the alternative being arguably worse, although I’m open to discussion on that one.

But each of these people’s death notices evokes thoughts beyond the mere dates and places of their beginning and end. They plant the seeds of wonder, curiosity, and emotion that bloom in your imagination, in your heart.

Contrast the older folks with  “Skylar Herbert, 5, Detroit, Michigan’s youngest victim of the coronavirus pandemic.” With those lines, you can’t help but go back to the baby’s shoes, never used. No soccer games, no first time on a two-wheeler, no graduations. A life scarcely lived. But you can imagine the memories never had and create the same stories as you do with the others.

A few more before closing.

“James W. Landis, 57, Krocksville Pa., loved his truck, Dorney Park, Disney World, model trains, and especially California cheeseburgers.”

“Steve Dalkowski, 80, New Britain, Conn., gifted pitcher who never made the big leagues.” I hope he’s waiting in the bullpen at the Field of Dreams waiting his first major league start.

“Asela E. Dejo, 92, New Jersey, excellent cook, though she hated the task.” I wish I had her grit.

“Robert M. Shaw, 69, Beverly, Mass., loved being Grandpa to his ‘little man’ and ‘sweet pea.”

You run with that one. I’m done for right now.

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COVID-19: Waving from Across the River

“U.S. DEATHS NEAR 100,000, AN INCALCULABLE LOSS, said the May 24, 2020 New York Times headline over an article that calculated the loss. It was a stunning piece of work, really. I had no intention of reading the whole thing–the headline pretty much said it all–but after reading the first name, I read the next, and the next, and so on until the end.

“One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic,” Joseph Stalin reportedly said. I was never a big fan of Joe, but he’s sort of right in a perverse way. The Times piece, though, was no mere glorified Vital Statistics section. The names, listed by date of death, included lines from the obituaries or death notices, adding dimension to the statistic and weaving a quilt of incalculable loss.

We lived in San Francisco years ago, where people you met never asked the usual, “What do you do?” They didn’t care where you worked so much as finding out who you were, what made you tick. What makes the names in the Times story so compelling is the sense of the whole person radiating through mere words.

Each entry, each death, is a story. Some are novels. For the reader, it’s an encounter with a whole life, not just its end. I’ve selected just a few, here, which was hard, because they’re all really interesting, and I could go on for 10,000 words. This Styx thing is interesting. In any event, here’s the sampling.

“George Freeman Winfield, 72, Shelburne, Vt., could make anything grow.” Who doesn’t know someone like George?

“Theresa Elloie, 63, New Orleans, La., renowned for her business making detailed pins and corsages.” At some point in her life, Theresa thought, “Hmm, I can make some money with this,” after creating her tenth or twelfth corsage. Or, perhaps a friend or relative said, “Theresa, these are so beautiful you ought to sell them.”

“Romi Cohn, 91, New York City, saved 56 Jewish families from the Gestapo.” Generations and friends of generations didn’t just know the rabbi and what he had done, but many owed their existence to him..

“Fred Walter Gray, 75, Benton County, Wa., liked his bacon and hash browns crispy.” With that, Mr. Gray came to life. You can hear him barking at the server in the diner to make sure the bacon and hash browns were crispy. You can see his wife and kids cringe just before he does it, because they know it’s coming. Of such things are memories made.

“Helen Kafkis, 91, Chicago, known for her Greek chicken and stuffed peppers.” You can smell Ms. Kafkis’s kitchen. You can see her bent over the range, stirring and tasting with the steam rising on both sides of her tiny gray head. You can see her stir with one hand and grab for the hot pad with the other and open the oven.

“Angelo Piro, 87, New York City, known for serenading friends with Tony Bennett songs.” Can’t you hear his friends? “Angelo, Christ Almighty, stop it with ‘The Good Life’ already and do ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’, wouldja?”

“Ronald Willencamp, 75, Wisconsin, proud to have logged over five million miles behind the wheel.” Like anyone else, Mr. Willencamp no doubt had a few regrets over choices not made, over opportunities squandered, whatever. But goddamit, he logged five million miles and you didn’t.

“Susan Great Hopp Crofoot, 97, Westwood, N.J., took great joy in writing little ditties under her pen name, Penelope Penwiper.” Most of these names brought me to the brink of tears, but this one put me over it. I imagined her getting the idea of writing her ditties for posterity. I imagined her deciding she needed a pen name when her real name kind of sounds like one. And I imagined the person who put this into the obit and the affection he or she had for Ms. Crofoot.

“Tommie Brown, 82, Gary, Ind., who died the same day as his wife. Doris Brown, 79, wife who died the same day as her husband.” Think about that one for awhile.

“Edward Cooper, Jr., 83, Louisiana, he loved his wife and said, ‘Yes, dear’ a lot.” This entry, as with all the others, stunned me in saying so much more than the mere words.

Okay, a couple more before I stop.

“Jerzy Glowczewski, 97, New York City, last of the WWII Polish fighter pilots.” Wow. I didn’t even know there were WWII Polish fighter pilots, which, I guess, is dumb on my part, but did you? His name made Memorial Day all the more special for me.

“Muriel M. Going, 92, Cedarburg, Wis., taught her girls sheepshead and canasta.” Sheepshead (I had to Google it) is a German card game. With that, you can see a history or a persona and a family, and even share, if vicariously, the love people had for Ms. Going as well as the way she had to have affected so many.

Quite a few names of famous people appear, but it’s the ordinary folk who grab you by the heart and shake it. What you realize is that a neighborhood, a city, a county, a state, a country, a world, when it’s all said and done and the historians are outlining their essays, is that it isn’t the great ones, the billionaires and the star athletes and the presidents and the generals who make society work, it’s all of us. Each one of us is a tiny speck of life that forms into sand and then into mortar and then into bricks and then into buildings, and that’s what makes a society, a culture what it is. And who’s to say which morsel is the most valuable?

 

Coronavirus Shines a Light

Though no longer a baseball aficionado, I’m a big fan of newspaper sportswriters. The best of them don’t lack for point of view, attitude, and craft, as though they’re the noirish ghosts of another time–cynical, crusty, yet perennially hopeful despite themselves. One is Mark Kizla of the Denver Post, whose May 13, 2020 column is entitled, “Can MLB Survive Greedy Players, Owners?”

The coronavirus is shining a light on us all, not just professional sports. Painfully out there for all to see are society’s crunch points. Its fault lines. Our hierarchy of values. Through it all, Major League Baseball (MLB) owners and players, and even a few fans say the show must go on, epidemiological inconveniences notwithstanding. In that argument, MLB is a metaphor of America writ large.

“Whether we see baseball in these strange times will be as much about the Benjamins as safety concerns regarding COVID-19,” Kizla writes. I loved that line. As it does in a poem, a good line says so much. “Wouldn’t it be just like America if what kills the baseball season is the same dysfunction we’ve seen COVID-19 bring out in the rest of us? While the death count mounts, so does finger-pointing and name calling about the value of money and freedom versus health safety…,” he continues, noting that MLB gets 40 percent of its revenues from ticket sales, concessions, and related gate income.

That dough comes from us–the hoi polloi. Inside the pre-game ballpark, hot dog concessionaires and beer vendors and  maintenance people scurry into action. Outside, excited fans are shoulder-to-shoulder in the clanky bars and cafes staffed with harried servers. With the coronavirus stepping up to the plate, though, strike three. Fans and service people go on the DL, many of them filing for unemployment benefits.

National unemployment could hit 25-30 percent, but some middle-reliever or backup infielder you never heard of will collect his $5 million or so salary.

Unlike Kizla, I don’t blame the players and owners and call out their greed. Maybe they are greedy–what do I know? I doubt they’re much different than the rest of us. They’ve placed themselves into the professional sports machinery society created, and they do what they do. Maybe they’re holding a better hand than most, but it’s the one they were dealt.

According to the website marketwatch.com, the average MLB player salary is a shade under $4.1 million. The highest paid, pitcher Mike Trout, bagged $396 million in 2019. It’s more than a teacher makes. It’s more than a cop or a nurse makes. And it’s way more than a service worker makes. A worker–any worker–performs labor whose worth society collectively ascribes to that job, but when it’s all laid bare, what is a worker’s value? Does the worth we’ve ascribed to MLB players reflect their value to society?

What happens when the season is ready to get underway and nobody comes? Nichts. Nada. When the taken-for-granted fans and the low- to medium-paid don’t show up, the whole creaky engine grinds to a halt. The unimaginable media payouts, the gargantuan salaries, the engorged team balance sheets, and the ESPN froth all stop faster than a kid in socks hitting a patch of spilled honey while gliding across a hardwood floor.

Pro baseball needs more than the highest paid–athletes and owners–to function. Similarly, America has belatedly realized the value of grocery store and health care and delivery workers and how their worth does not at all correlate with the value we’ve given them. The term “income inequality” had been something of an abstract concept, but with the klieg lights of COVID-19 illuminating the 99 percent, everyone gets it.

For some time, corporate America has referred to low-level employees as “team members,” a transparent attempt to spit shine their image while refusing to pay them more. When the threat of COVID-19 lessens, perhaps our society will appreciate which team members provide the greatest value and which ones don’t, and adjust their compensation accordingly.

Never let a crisis go to waste, right?

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